What's Wrong with Roush Fenway Racing and When Will It Improve?

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JULY 26:  Team owner Jack Roush looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 26, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Roush Fenway Racing was once one of the premier organizations in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

These days, meh, not so much.

RFR is coming off one of its worst seasons ever. In 2015 it failed to win even one Sprint Cup race, and all three of its drivers missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup and finished 20th (Greg Biffle), 25th (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) and 29th (Trevor Bayne).

How? Why? What happened?

Yet on the flip side, in the Xfinity Series, RFR cars dominated, led by series champion Chris Buescher, followed by Elliott Sadler (sixth), Darrell Wallace Jr. (seventh) and Ryan Reed (10th).

So how can the same organization be so disparate between NASCAR’s major league and minor league?

Good question. Unfortunately, no one seems to have an answer—particularly those at RFR.

All Ford factory teams—RFR, Team Penske and Richard Petty Motorsports—are powered by the same engines built out of the same shop (Roush Yates Engines).

So how is it that Team Penske’s Joey Logano wins six races, including the Daytona 500, and yet RFR drivers managed just a combined four top-fives and nine top-10s in a combined 118 starts?

The problem doesn’t lie in team majority owner Jack Roush. You won’t find a more determined, fastidious, tenacious and committed owner of a Sprint Cup team than the so-called Cat in the Hat.

Nor are resources an issue, as Roush makes sure each of his teams have the best Ford-based equipment his money can buy.

Roush also has excellent personnel for the most part, but therein potentially lies one of the major contributing factors to RFR’s struggles in recent years: There has been a problem matching the right people with the right team and right driver.

In other words, much of RFR’s problems can be related to team chemistry, where driver and crew chief don’t communicate very well, or team members are also ill fits with certain teams.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Consider this: Since 2011, the last year any Roush driver had a bonafide chance for the championship—Carl Edwards tied with Tony Stewart but lost on a tiebreaker (most wins)—RFR has amassed a grand total of 10 wins in the last four seasons.

That’s an average of 2.5 per year.

What’s more, eight of those 10 wins came from drivers who are no longer with the organization, as both Matt Kenseth and Edwards moved on to arch-rival Joe Gibbs Racing.

And Biffle, who is the senior statesman in the organization, having turned 46 last month, has not won a race since 2013.

There’s no secret NASCAR is a very cyclical sport. Teams can have great seasons one year and fall on their face the following year.

Drivers can be as dominant as anything throughout their career and then suddenly hit a brick wall performance-wise. If you don’t believe that last one, look at Stewart over the last three seasons.

Smoke has won just one race (2013) and has failed to make the Chase all three seasons, which has perhaps hastened his decision to retire at the end of the 2016 season.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

But getting back to RFR, sadly, 2016 could very likely be the same as 2015 from a performance standpoint. Sure, the organization has made several hires, particularly in the aerodynamic and engineering departments, but it’s going to need a lot more to reverse the backwards course it has been on these last several years.

Perhaps the best thing would be to either go after a key free agent at the end of 2016, or better yet, do a complete housecleaning of its driver lineup.

Biffle’s current contract goes through 2017. Ditto for Stenhouse and Bayne. Frankly, I can’t see Roush resigning Biffle when he’s closing in on 48 years old.

Stenhouse has done virtually nothing in his four full-time seasons on the Sprint Cup circuit and has potentially worn out his welcome among RFR fans. Sure, he’s Danica Patrick’s boyfriend, but if that’s his only claim to fame to date in the Cup series, surely someone out there can do much better.

And as for Bayne, yes, he won the 2011 Daytona 500, being pushed to the finish line by Edwards. But in all his years of racing for the Wood Brothers as well as Roush, he’s shown very little on the Sprint Cup level.

Roush Fenway Racing has also tried replacing a number of crew chiefs over the years, yet those actions haven’t worked, either.

What RFR should have done for 2016 was bring in Regan Smith and potentially bring back David Ragan in place of Stenhouse and Bayne, respectively.

Mark Almond/Associated Press

Sure, it would have had to eat a lot of contract money, but at the same time, which is more important: paying someone not to race, or paying someone else to race—and potentially perform—better?

As we prepare for the 2016 season, the needle on the RFR prediction machine has moved very little from 2015, perhaps moving even further into negative territory.

Without any significant shakeup in the cards, it’s likely 2016 will be as bad or worse than 2015, just like 2015 was as bad or worse than 2014. And 2017, pretty much the same thing yet again.

It’ll be NASCAR’s version of the film Groundhog Day, where sadly, everything stays the same year after year after year until finally things just can't sink any lower.


Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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